The dehumanising state of the Nigerian prisons is a cause for serious concern and if nothing urgent is done, the situation may soon degenerate to an abysmal level where convicts or even long held suspects become hardened criminals instead of reformed citizens they are supposed to be after jail term.

From the appalling prison conditions to the dilapidated state of infrastructure, the overcrowded prisons now leave most visitors wondering whether the inmates have lost their right to be treated with dignity as human beings. Amnesty International, which conducted a study of our prisons in 2008, estimated that at least 65 percent of inmates in Nigerian prisons have never been convicted of any crime. Some have even been awaiting trial for up to ten years. In the last two years since the study was carried out, nothing much has changed. This is unacceptable and characteristic of a defective criminal justice system.

The international body further estimated that most suspects are too poor to afford a lawyer. Only one in seven inmates awaiting trial have access to private legal representation. Nigeria has less than 100 aid lawyers. The poor ventilation, lack of potable water, the unhealthy food and brutality by warders send many prisoners and some suspects to their early graves.

Daily, people not suspected of committing any crime are imprisoned along with convicted criminals following shoddy police investigation and outright victimisation. Some are arrested in place of a family member the police cannot locate.

Furthermore, prison staff work long and stressful hours for low wages that are often paid late. Poor pay often leads to petty extortion of prisoners, and staff shortages create security risks for both staff and inmates.

Mr. Astr Van Kregten, Amnesty International Chief summarised the state of Nigerian prisons thus: “The problems in Nigeria’s criminal justice system – especially its prisons — are so blatant and egregious that the Nigerian government has had no choice but to recognise them — and has pledged many times that it will reform the system. However, the reality is that those in prison stand little chance of their rights being respected. Those without money stand even less chance. Some could end up spending the rest of their lives behind bars in appalling conditions without ever having been convicted of a crime — sometimes simply due to their case files having been lost by the police. Many inmates awaiting trial are effectively presumed guilty – despite the fact that there is little evidence of their involvement in the crime of which they are accused.”

There is therefore a need for a holistic reform of our prisons. The prisons must be decongested and prisoners must be allowed to engage in productive ventures as it is the case in other climes.

To achieve this, prisons must also be built in the outskirts of the town on a wide expanse of land where prisoners can farm and feed themselves like what obtains in advanced countries.

Prisoners must also be allowed to watch television, listen to radio or read newspapers so that they can keep pace with the time and do not feel awkward once they are released. They must be fully engaged because it is idleness that makes them to take hard drugs that are smuggled into the prisons. All these measures must be carried out urgently so that the country’s criminal justice system can meet 21st century challenges.